by David Kirkpatrick
Edwin Jansen, Director of Marketing, Softchoice, understands the value of a comprehensive content marketing strategy.
Softchoice is a North American IT supplier that helps companies of all sizes select, acquire and manage technology needs by aiding in matching those technologies with the business’ needs and requirements.
About three years ago, Softchoice embarked on what Jansen described as its "content marketing journey."
He provided MarketingSherpa with six lessons learned during that time, including the importance of making the entire strategy very customer-centric, utilizing institutional knowledge to create powerful content pieces, and quantifying content marketing success.
Here is what Jansen and Softchoice’s marketing team has learned over the last three years.
Lesson #1. Put the customer first
Jansen said the "traditional marketing paradigm" of spending money where your customers are, trying to interpret the needs of those customers, and then hopefully effectively selling to them are over.
He explained, "Brands are no longer what they say they are. Brands are now what their customers say they are because (those customers) no longer have to listen to a brand anymore. They can listen to their peers."
Jansen added, "As that power shift happens and customers are in control, I think a shift is required from selling to serving."
By serving, he means serving the needs and wants of the customer, and not using marketing to simply sell to them. He stated the new content marketing paradigm is the story. In a marketing campaign, the pitch can't be about you; it has to be about the customer.
"As soon as you put the focus on the customer -- their needs, their pains, their issues, their questions and their context -- and you create content around that, your expectation is that instead of pushing your message on them you begin pulling them with your value proposition," Jansen said.
He added that a content strategy of pulling customers in instead of pushing a message out can also lead to your content going viral and being spread by your customers through comments and sharing.
Jansen also said this strategy "feels better" for marketers because it can be more meaningful and marketers can spend energy trying to help people instead of just selling to them.
Lesson #2. The customer now drives the brand
Content marketing strategies should put the customer first because the customer now drives the brand, not the other way around as it had been in traditional marketing efforts.
Jansen provided a hypothetical example.
If you travel to New York City and want to find great pizza, are you going to visit different restaurant’s websites? Jansen says no, because most people don’t trust the website and you expect every restaurant to say its pizza is great.
Instead, you will likely visit Yelp, Urban Spoon or another similar site to find out the recommendations of your friends and customers of those restaurants.
Bringing this idea to B2B marketing, Jansen said Softchoice conducted a survey about a year and a half ago with B2B technology managers, IT managers and directors, asking for their most trusted sources of information.
Number one was user groups and peer groups, followed by blogs (possibly amateur opinions of people outside the brand), and third was IT industry analysts (paid objective professionals).
The rest of the list broke down in this order:
- Vendor websites
- IT consulting websites
"That clearly tells you that the reason they don’t trust and value your material is because of where it’s coming from with the intention of trying to sell them something." Jansen stated. "When the message is about you and not them, they’re not listening."
Because your customer can now filter their information sources about your brand, they effectively have control over your brand. The content marketing challenge is to create content that your customer will find at their preferred source.
Lesson #3. Create a customer-centric content strategy
"We ask ourselves all the time, ‘Is this about us, is this about a product we are selling, or this about the customer?’" said Jansen, discussing content pieces.
He added it’s a day-to-day challenge to make sure the content passes that test because, as marketers, the team had been trained to make content about the company and its products, services and value proposition.
Jansen continued that as reseller of technologies, Softchoice also has to balance working hand-in-hand with its vendor partners to promote the benefits of those products while addressing its customers’ needs and framing the content in the customers’ language.
He said, "The first question for us is ‘What is the customers’ pain, and how can we match this particular product or solution to the customer?’ The second question is, ‘What is the best vehicle to do that?’"
Jansen went on to list a number of content vehicles, including:
- Blog post
- Event series
He said the marketing team is continually experimenting with different types of content and added the only vehicle not tried out so far is a podcast.
Softchoice spends the greatest amount of content energy on its blog posts.
Lesson #4. Set content marketing standards
Not surprisingly, Jansen said the number one standard, or litmus test, for any piece of content should be to answer: is it about the customer, is it about us, or is it about something else?
"As far as process is concerned, the one thing that we’ve really realized is that brands are now becoming like publishers, and you need to figure out what your publishing process is going to look like -- the editing process, the approval process, preparing a blog post for SEO, planning an editorial calendar," Jansen explained.
He continued that it’s important to have all the various stakeholders represented in this overall process and that he spends a lot of time refining the entire publishing model at Softchoice.
Lesson #5. Utilize institutional knowledge
Once the marketing becomes focused on the customer, it then becomes about identifying their needs and providing content that is ultimately useful in some way and hopefully entertaining as well.
"How do you build that?" asked Jansen. "Should you go to an agency or do you try to do it all in-house?"
He said, at least in Softchoice’s business, there are people in the company who are customer-facing, so they know the pains of the customer and they are providing value every day. The goal is learn what these employees do and about the most common conversations they have with customers, the advice they give, and the best practices they talk about.
Jansen said the challenge then is to find the best content vehicle for each employee.
For someone who is great in presentations and on the phone, it might be best to conduct a simple video interview asking about the most common and best ways they are helping customers.
An employee who has many "tidbits of advice" and "zingers" or is good at sending links to great articles, getting them on social media writing tweets might be the answer.
Jansen said, "I think many organizations have lots of thought leaders who are providing individual value all day long."
The trick is to scale that knowledge through a content vehicle.
To get employees comfortable with social media who might otherwise shy away from that channel, Softchoice internally employs Yammer, a Twitter-like platform, to provide a safe way to practice communicating in a social format.
Lesson #6. Quantify the content marketing strategy
The two key performance indicators Jansen looks at are marketing qualified leads (MQL) and sales qualified leads (SQL) to track the return on investment (ROI) of the content strategy. The idea is to correlate the content driven with leads that move through the pipeline and eventually can be correlated with revenue.
He said one problem with truly quantifying success is if these numbers were not being tracked before the content-based marketing plan, such as was the case at Softchoice. Once they are tracked, there’s no figures to compare the new numbers against.
He did add anecdotally the response from both Sales and Softchoice customers has been positive with Sales feeling like they are getting value from the content strategy, and that measurements such as website views, downloads, social media followers and blog subscribers have all increased since the content-driven approach went into place.
Jansen added the marketing team has created its own benchmark -- "popluence" -- a combination of popularity measurements and influence measurements to use as an ongoing scorecard for its overall marketing strategy.
Popularity measures include:
- Blog views
- Video views
Influence measures include:
- Social shares
- Cloud scores
These different measurements were weighted and scored by the marketing team to provide Softchoice a dashboard on how it’s performing on all its main content properties.
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